A factor that has shaped my writing style is my work as a radio producer and script-writer: this was my full-time occupation for over ten years and something I am still engaged in, though to a lesser extent than in the past.
A rule when writing for radio is to write as people speak. So “it is” becomes “it’s”; “does not” becomes “doesn’t”. In everyday speech sentences don’t always have verbs. Really. But although radio scripts are better when they closely follow the way we speak, this principle should be used in moderation in a factual book. If overdone, it is likely to irritate the reader.
In matters of vocabulary, I prefer to err on the side of simplicity. Few of us know the meaning of the words “imbricate”, “mangonel” or “zymurgy” and authors who manage to shoe-horn them into their writing are either crediting us with a wider vocabulary than we actually have or – more likely – are simply showing off. And I feel the same way about writers who use Latin and Greek phrases and sayings. As a schoolboy (long ago!) I had to study Latin, most of which I have never had to use and have now forgotten. Greek was not taught at our school. And a knowledge of these languages is even rarer today. So remember, using obscure language is contra bonos mores — (contrary to good manners)!
Writing for radio taught me how to use interview material. In a book – especially a historical one – the equivalent of an archive audio interview can be a quotation from a newspaper of the period, or a passage from another book. I like to ensure that the narration guides the listener/reader through the story, providing a factual background for individual events and reminiscences. The actual words spoken by witnesses are often best used to convey more subjective ideas, such as the speaker’s impressions and feelings:
After his unfavourable first impressions of Britain, Henry Metelmann also came to see things in a different light. The turning point came when he was being moved to a camp near Romsey, Hampshire, and watched the countryside rolling by as he gazed out of the train window. ‘In many ways England was a strange country. That narrow channel of water seemed to have made much difference over the centuries. Most things seemed small and old-fashioned. The rows and rows of houses in the towns, with their small backyards and gardens, seemed cramped. The people were friendly enough, but strangely reserved, and life generally had an unhurried flow, so very different from America and the Continent of Europe. And yet, there was something likeable about it all … Those [prisoners-of-war] who lived out on the farms had very good relations with the farming people, and on the whole were treated very well … I was transferred to an out-camp in a beautiful old country house called Hazelhurst, near the village of Corhampton. It did me much psychological good, as it gave me a feeling of freedom which I had not had for many years.’ [From Hitler’s Last Army, page 201].
The quotation also serves to amplify and reinforce what has been said in the lead-in, while at the same time introducing independent evidence for the author’s statements:
Even his longest-serving employees had no real idea who he was. Monsieur Coste told a correspondent: ‘The man was a mystery. He never spoke to anyone. He didn’t have any friends, male or female. He opened all his mail himself, and kept any money he received to one side. He was out all day — I don’t know where.’ [From The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo, page 181]